#VanStartupCity: tech entrepreneurship tips from the leaders

tobias lutke

“If you want to be successful, follow your contribution, not your passion.” This and other bits of wisdom resulted from a conversation about how companies of all stripes can leverage technology and tech startup-style innovation to get traction at Vancouver Startup City. The Vancouver Economic Commission hosted events at the Imperial this week.

Thursday included The Next Big Story…and The Next Big Stories, a panel discussion with tomorrow’s tech leaders and a conversation with today’s tech superstar, Shopify CEO Tobias (Tobi) Lutke.

We need to foster entrepreneurship better from the start

A mid-afternoon panel of up-and-coming technology leaders, moderated by Matt Switzer, VP of corporate development at Hootsuite and Dr. Alexandra Greenhill, CEO at MyBestHelper.com, focused on common challenges and goals.

Given the pace of on-the-job learning that entrepreneurs do with the help of experienced advisors, it’s not always completely clear what to do next – no matter how well education has prepared them. “I didn’t even know there was a name for ‘mentor whiplash’ before this panel, but I’ve definitely experienced it,” said Daniel Dubois, CEO and founder of ShareShed. “It was strange at the beginning, having an entrepreneur I respect giving me advice, and the very next day, another respected mentor is telling me the exact opposite.”

All the panelists concurred with that, but “you know your business best,” said Dhaman Rakhra, COO of Bo and a Next 36 graduate. “Ultimately, you’ve got to filter what you’re hearing and do what’s best for your company.”

Even before they get to the mentor stage, entrepreneurs need to seek out education and resources to put them on the right path. “Our school system is very broken. I was fortunate in that my first mentors were teachers, but it wasn’t our schooling system – it was the individuals I connected with,” said Dubois.

Rakhra added that the education system needs to work harder to foster interest in STEM early in a student’s life. “I wish there was education early on in high school about what tech is doing around the world.”

Megan Nantel, a student of the University of British Columbia (UBC) engineering program and one of Science World’s Future Science Leaders, was a bit more optimistic: “At UBC, if I wanted to start up something, my teachers would support me and I would have all the resources I would need. There are some programs that support students well. It’s what the goal of the program is.”

Where do you get your dopamine from? Figure it out – and retrain your brain as you build your business

At the beginning of the year, Shopify was listed on the New York and Toronto stock exchanges and the company has seen massive growth, Lutke noted in a livestream from the AccelerateOTT fireside. Partly, they owe their runaway success to the culture of the nerd, he said.

“I played a lot of video games in the 90s and learned to hack them,” he explained. “I grew up in this sort of environment without any respect or reverence for what other people created, where others might use it without questioning. For me, everything was up for negotiation. If you’re a toaster and I don’t like how you work, I’m going to change you.”

That desire to tinker and problem solve greatly influenced his personal path and set him on the path to be a programmer. “Throughout my life, I’ve lived almost 10 years before everyone’s future. I had a computer 10 years before most people.”

“I’m not hiring you to do what you know, but to do the things you don’t know.” – Tobias Lutke, CEO of Shopify at AccelerateOTT

But he recognized that as Shopify was becoming something bigger, he needed to change up his game. “In days or weeks when I didn’t do programming, I would go into depression,” Lutke says. “I had to reprogram my dopamine loop – otherwise I felt there’s no way I’m going to be effective at seeing everything through.”

This came from having long discussions with investors when Lutke wanted to hire another CEO when his co-founder left. “The investor said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to find someone who’s going to care about this as much as you do. They’re going to be a diminished version of you.’ That’s what set me on this path,” Lutke said. “It took me a year of concentrated thought, thinking ‘the company is doing well’, and I had to tell my brain this over and over until it started to believe it. Hopefully you can trick your brain into this. I had to tell myself the thing I loved wasn’t programming, but learning – and once I detached pleasure from programming and shunted it into how much I was learning, I was able to move on.”

Always learning is the key to tech startup success – and that can’t just be confined to the CEO. “The most important trait is authenticity, which involves learning things that you don’t know. I’m not hiring you to do what you know, but to do the things you don’t know,” said Lutke. “If you can do that, you’ll be extremely useful in the context of a startup. If you’re a part of a company that doubles every year, your job changes every six months.”

He continued, “Way too many people churn out of the process because they think they’re supposed to have all the answers when they need them. Actually, its better if you talk with your team, admit you all don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re all going to figure things out. It’s about getting past those plateaus. Be committed to helping each other. That’s how we did it at Shopify. Every day, the team got a little better, until we were ready to IPO.”

Building up the tech startup landscape in Canada

“When you look at the loyalty people have and how smart people are in Canada, you see this is the best place to start a company,” Lutke said. “It just needs an attitude shift. Instead of hiring a CEO, or selling early, just do this thing.”

Lutke also said that Canadian entrepreneurs need to think clearly about why they become entrepreneurs – and it can’t primarily be about making money. “A startup is a horrible way to make money. When you look at the number of failures, success is like winning the lottery. Don’t do it for that – be personal-growth greedy and aim for the things that are meaningful.”

(Photo Credit: Matt Jacques)

Jonathon Narvey

Jonathon Narvey

Jonathon Narvey is a content marketing strategist and BetaKit Senior Editor. Living and working in the heart of downtown Vancouver, he's watched this city's tech hub grow and start to compete on a world-class level. He has learned most of what he knows about tech startups and entrepreneurial spirit by interviewing some of the most innovative thought leaders here and abroad. He's always up for learning something new about the startups, leaders and technologies that are changing our world.